Where Do All Your Used Clothes Ultimately End Up?

When you clean out your closet and fill up a bag to donate to Goodwill or the Salvation Army with stuff that no longer fits or you just don’t want, it might be the end of your time with those high-waisted jeans or Barenaked Ladies concert tee. But it’s just the beginning of a long, winding path that can terminate thousands of miles and an ocean away.

Slate has an excerpt from the new book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, where author Elizabeth L. Cline visits a few stops along the secondhand clothes highway.

First up is a Salvation Army in Brooklyn that also acts as a sorting and distribution center for eight Salvation Army locations in the area.

In a back room, dozens of women sort through an average of five tons of new arrivals every day. Out of that mountain, they can select exactly 11,200 garments, which are then distributed to among the affiliated Salvation Army stores.

“We never run out of clothes,” an assistant supervisor at the center tells Cline. “There are always enough clothes.”

Rejected clothes are then taken into a separate warehouse and pressed into half-ton bales. Cline says that just this one Salvation Army center churns out 36 of these bales on an average day.

These bales then go to any of the thousands of textile recyclers in the country who once again sift through the donated clothes to pull out still wearable items — and the occasional vintage gem that has gone unnoticed.

Cline visited one processor in New Jersey that takes in around 17 million pounds every year.

“I like to call it the good, the bad, and the ugly,” says the company’s president. “We get everything from torn sweaters to spoiled and stained towels to good useable clothing.”

And it’s the “good” portion of that trinity that then gets sorted, shrink-wrapped and baled for sale to used-clothing companies, many of whom then sell the garments overseas.

“[B]y one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa,” writes Cline.

Even when the clothing reaches the shores of some other country, it’s not necessarily the end of the road, as used-clothing customers aren’t just blindly snapping up the clothes you no longer want. As economies develop and customers become more worldly, they are also becoming more selective about their purchases.

Asks Cline:

As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end. What then?

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  1. The Cupcake Nazi says:

    “In a back room, dozens of women sort through an average of five tons of new arrivals every day.”

    “Cline says that just this one Salvation Army center churns out 36 of these bales on an average day.”

    Uh….something here doesn’t add up…are they hiding bodies in these bales or what?

    • The Cupcake Nazi says:

      To clarify, since I cut off an important part of the quote by mistake…they’re pressed into half-ton bales. But somehow out of five tons of clothes a day they get 36 half-ton bales a day, i.e. 18 tons? Does not computer.

      • nugatory says:

        Anyone want to bet a million internet$ that he meant 36 bales a week?

        At 5 tons a day, thats close to 50% in the bales.

        • Diabolos needs more socks says:

          The mentioned sorting and distribution center could be one of multiple locations that feed that particular warehouse.

        • Diabolos needs more socks says:

          The mentioned sorting and distribution center could be one of multiple locations that feed that particular warehouse.

        • Diabolos needs more socks says:

          The mentioned sorting and distribution center could be one of multiple locations that feed that particular warehouse.

    • akiri423 says:

      The article also states that they regularly purge their inventory of things that haven’t sold after a certain number of days, so I imagine this adds to the total…?

    • The Cupcake Nazi says:

      Here we go, thanks to Martha Gail posting the link below to what this blog post was cribbed from, it turns out to just be a really bad job of rewriting (why am I not shocked?).

      The actual number is “36 [half ton] bales, of unwanted clothing every three days”. Not every day. That number is still off, but much, much closer to the 5 tons a day that comes in.

  2. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    That’s crazy, that we have millions of pounds of clothing each year that is donated and actually not put back into circulation in the U.S. You just can’t even fathom that by only going to thrift stores, if they only keep a fraction of that.

    • catskyfire says:

      A part of it is that a lot of what we donate nobody else wants to pay money for. I have a good 20 shirts in my closet that have specific names/events on them. Those don’t sell well. And if it’s in too bad of shape for me to keep, why would someone else want it?

      I have seen some of what people “give” away, and it’s not always that much of a gift.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        Which covers the 17 million that go to African.

      • HogwartsProfessor says:

        Ragbag. Cut up old t-shirts and use them as cleaning rags. Or cut out the printing with the events on it and make a big old quilt. There are tons of ways we can recycle our own stuff.

    • RandomHookup says:

      Lots of the clothing ends up being recycled as insulation or burned as fuel. There are only so many polyester leisure suits that a Kenyan man can wear in a year.

    • 99 1/2 Days says:

      People need to think before they buy more clothes. You ever work at a dry cleaner’s you’ll see why cotton is replacing other crops (like edible ones) as a cash crop, which drives up the price of food.

  3. sirwired says:

    “As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end. What then?”

    What then? Seriously? They even need to ask?

    The clothes will go into landfills, which is exactly where they’d head if the Salvation Army didn’t take them.

    • Buckus says:

      …Then they’ll go to China, where rising incomes mean they will reject their own cheap non-import clothing in favor of imported designer label clothing.

      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        Honestly, American Apparel looks better on a typical Chinese person than a typical American person.

    • Lackwit says:

      I’d rather picture a scenario in which mountains and gullies of old turtlenecks and acid-washed denim accrete on blighted thoroughfares in desolate cityscapes. The ice rink in Rockefeller Center filled up with “All Your Base” t-shirts, that kind of thing.

    • lim says:

      Braided rugs. Horrible, horrible braided rugs.

    • Kate says:

      Rags are used to make good paper. There’s no point to landfilling them, unless they are polyester.

    • Snip says:

      I used to live in a small town that had a donation trunk located in a parking area near the town square. It was a well-crafted little piece of outdoor furniture that anyone could open up and peruse what was inside without the inside contents being subjected too much to the elements. People were considerate and closed the trunk when they weren’t donating or taking from it. Probably not an ideal solution for most neighborhoods, but it worked well there.

  4. FatLynn says:

    I hope this doesn’t discourage people from donating. I’d like to know what types of clothing they are overrun with, and what they still need. For example, I bet they have lots of t-shirts, but maybe they are short on something like winter coats.

    • TommyTutone says:

      Winter coats, an important commodity in sub-Saharan Africa.

      • j2.718ff says:

        They’re an important commodity somewhere. And with the massive sort operations described, I think there’s a good chance that if donated, they’ll get to people who can use them.

      • iesika says:

        Coats should go to Coats for Kids or similar, for targeted redistribution.

        Don’t donate to the Salvation Army. They be evil. If you donate to smaller organizations, you’re donations have a better chance of being resold instead of trashed. Don’t buy from the Salvation Army. They will use your money to oppose human rights reform in developing countries.

        I’m all in favor of exporting perfectly good used clothes to places where people need them and will buy them. I’m not in favor of the Salvation Army getting the money for that transaction.

        • Lisse24 says:

          Unless you give your reasons for stating that they’re ‘evil,’ you sound like someone with a personal grudge.

          • Dieflatermous says:

            They’re very loudly anti-gay and have actively campaigned against marriage equality. There was stuff in the paper just a few days ago about it, they haven’t changed their tune in decades.

            Charities can do a lot of good but it doesn’t mean everything they do is good, or the good cancels out the evil. It’s worth recognizing and being aware of.

          • HogwartsProfessor says:

            They hate gay people. That’s enough for me. I’m not gay but I hate that shit. I have too many loved ones who are.

            *proudly wears her new “Takei Straight Alliance” t-shirt in public*

            • Verdant Pine Trees says:

              You’ve just helped sell another one of those t-shirts, my friend!

            • veronykah says:

              I donate my stuff to “Out of the Closet” or Goodwill. Neither of which are affiliated with “salvation” or Jesus.

          • Dieflatermous says:

            That two seconds of googling, btw.

          • iesika says:

            Sorry for the late reply. You can read the “controversy” section on their wikipedia page for a summary, but over the last decade and a half, at least, they have been consistently opposed to equality and even in some cases basic human rights. They have twice threatened to close all their soup kitchens in New York if forced to comply with existing laws that require institutions receiving public funds to not discriminate against protected classes in their hiring and benefits. They have campaigned against human rights reform in developing countries, using money donated to them and earned from selling donations, with the threat of interruption of services. Most people aren’t aware of this and think they’re helping people when they give their clothes to these wingnuts.

            This is why religious organizations should not be given public funds for any reason, and why we should not rely on them to administer charity, especially internationally. When you donate, please donate to secular charities. As a rule, they are more likely to not decide to deliberately screw over some segment of the population for ideological reasons. Goodwill, for example, uses your donations to fund job training, not preaching.

  5. longfeltwant says:

    What then? Then we bury the trash in a subduction zone. Done and done.

  6. Skittl1321 says:

    What is the textile recycling process for the items that are not wearable? It doesn’t sound like clothes have to go to landfills if that process is in place.

    Or is this another instance of the word recycle being used when “reuse” should be used? Is no actual recycling taking place beyond sorting to see if anything is wearable to send to Africa (vs wearable to send to stores in the USA)

    • josephpr says:

      I believe they do have recycling demand for cotton, possibly others, but not likely that synthetics are in high demand. Now if I am wrong, or if they can recycle those, the situation looks better.

      • iesika says:

        Most fibers can be recycled in some context, though not necessarily as well as others. Cotton gets less and less useful the shorter the fibers get, so there’s limited life for it. Synthetics have different properties in a garment but are hard to tell apart as small, broken fibers.

        Most of it can be used for making paper and packing materials, if nothing else. Knitters and crocheters among us (including myself) often know how to take old t-shirts, sheets, etc, and turn them into recycled yarn. I make reusable shopping backs this way and use them as gift bags for holiday and birthday presents.

    • Martha Gail says:

      This is an excerpt from Cline’s book that Slate put up the other day, which goes far more in to detail and is probably where Phil got the idea for this blog entry. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/fashion/2012/06/the_salvation_army_and_goodwill_inside_the_places_your_clothes_go_when_you_donate_them_.html

  7. AngryK9 says:

    I usually wear all of my clothes until they are worn into tatters. Since I tend to buy everything larger than I really need, they never become too small. Once they are unable to be worn in public, I’ll wear them around the house only until they literally fall apart. When that happens, they become trashcan fodder. I still have clothes that I used to wear in high school…and I graduated in 1993….

    • Judah says:

      I’m like that too. Once they have too many holes to become unwearable, I cut T-shirts up for cleaning rags and turn jeans into ‘work’ clothes when painting/oiling/yardwork. After the yardwork further destroys the clothing, only then to they get trashed.

    • Jane_Gage says:

      Me too! Gen grunge for the win. Granted most of those clothes are so tattered something must be worn underneath.

    • dru_zod says:

      Same here. Old shirts and pants are very useful for wearing when mowing the yard, working in the garden, or doing things like painting a room, staining a deck, etc. It doesn’t matter if you get red deck stain all over a pair of pants you’ve had since 1999. If an article of clothing isn’t totally shredded, I can probably still use it.

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      *raises hand* Me too. I can’t afford good clothes and I’m not really interested in fashion. I’d rather spend my money on travel, books, music and geeky stuff.

    • kobresia says:

      Yeah, I still wear many of the clothes I had in HS, 1992 for me. I wear shirts until the sleeves fall off and pants until they have no ass left, and when they get to that condition, they make good shop rags. I think my yearly clothing budget averages out to less than $50 because most clothes do last a while.

    • catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

      my clothing cycle goes like this:
      1. wear to work
      2. wear to the grocery store
      3. wear around the house on days off
      4. wear for yardwork/crafts/painting
      5. stuff in old pillowcases for cat beds
      6. cleaning rags
      7a.cotton gets cut into strips and braided into lampwicks for my kerosene citronella lamps and burned
      7b. synthetics go in the trash

  8. Not Given says:

    In the next few years we may have to start buying their used clothes

  9. eezy-peezy says:

    I only buy used clothes. The amount of waste in this country is nauseating.

  10. ninabi says:

    I remember the tiny closets in the homes of elderly relatives growing up, the kind that held 10 outfits.

    Now we have mounds of clothing, but it’s crap that shrinks or falls apart so quickly.

    Where do people go anymore for stuff that lasts?

    • redskull says:

      So true. My grandma’s bedroom didn’t even have a closet, instead she had a free standing wardrobe that was about the size of the average refrigerator.

      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        Oh I love wardrobes! Closets just seem to accrue junk, but wardrobes are all about clothing care and management. Love, love, love!

  11. kataisa says:

    “[B]y one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa,” writes Cline.

    This explains the weirdness of seeing supposedly poor starving African kids wearing Cubs t-shirts on TV.

    • redskull says:

      Not joking– can people in Africa really wear American clothing? Most of the castoffs they get are probably 2XL or 3XL.

    • Emperor Norton I says:

      No way is this true!
      Either scrap metal or paper to be recycled is the largest export by volume.
      Another phony statistic made up out of whole cloth [deliberate pun].
      Enormous numbers of shipping containers go back to China with our old newspapers & cardboard, which then is made into the boxes that the Chinese ship their crappy, contaminated & shittily made junk back here.
      Otherwise, they go back empty.
      At least one person in China has made herself a billionaire recycling paper from America.

      • econobiker says:

        “Either scrap metal or paper to be recycled is the largest export by volume.”

        And sawdust or wood chips to back fill ships returning to China.

  12. waterboy179 says:

    “I remember the tiny closets in the homes of elderly relatives growing up, the kind that held 10 outfits.”

    I live in a house built in the 1920’s, and my wife uses both closets in the master bedroom and I use a spare bedroom closet. And those closets are still small compared to the walk-in monsters closets people have today.

  13. Datura says:

    In Zambia, second hand clothing from America has become very fashionable and desireable, although garments are often worn in different ways to what was intended originally. They call it Salaula, which means “to rummage through a pile”. Here is a great article about the journey of one blouse from the UK to Zambia: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/feb/25/voluntarysector.charitymanagement

  14. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    I’m not sure what’s happened at our local Goodwill store. I used to be able to get lots of nice clothes for work. About a year or so ago, that stopped. Now I’m lucky to find one or two shirts every month or so. My theory is the economy has finally caught up with the people who were donating clothes in my size, and they’re keeping them longer instead of donating each season.

    It’s usually easier just to go to KMart and WalMart and scour through the deep clearance racks. Prices are about the same, and the clothes are new.

    • quail says:

      The quality of your local charity thrift store depends upon the store’s location. But on the whole, the majority of the ‘good’ clothing is shipped overseas. The charity makes more money on that nice wool suit selling it in Africa than they do locally. It’s been like that since the 80s. Your best bets are the local charity shops, those without big networks sending stuff overseas.

  15. Blueskylaw says:

    They end up in Kansas because they’re always 10 years behind.

  16. MaytagRepairman says:

    My parents are snow birds. My mother told me that she regularly visited a place in southern Texas that had some of these bales and sold the clothes by the pound. It sounded more like a crap shoot where you literally bought a bag of clothes by the pound rather than getting to pick and choose what you wanted. I wish I could remember the details better.

    I think one-third of my shirts come from places like Goodwill and Salvation Army. Sometimes I get really lucky and find several in a row on the racks that were just donated from somebody my size. I have several pieces from Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger and I can’t remember the last time I’ve bought from either label new.

  17. Cacao says:

    Years ago I read this article about what happens to old clothes. Very interesting.

  18. You Can Call Me Al(isa) says:

    I tend to wear clothes till they wear out. Otherwise I give t-shirts to my nieces and nephews. The rest tend to get turned into rags to wax my car, wash the floors/walls, etc.

  19. sadie kate says:

    Whenever it’s closet cleaning time in my house, mine and my husband’s clothes get brought to a local thrift store whose proceeds go to a nonprofit rape crisis counseling center that also provides emergency shelter for domestic abuse victims. Baby clothes get brought to a local consignment store where unsold items are donated to a nonprofit organization that provides clothes, diapers and other necessities to low-income families. There have been time sin my life when a thrift store blouse was a luxury item to me; I am fortunate that now that I am better off, I can give my clothes a second life where they can help people in my community.

  20. Snip says:

    “As incomes rise in Africa, tastes become more savvy, cheap Chinese imports of new clothes flood those countries, and our own high-quality clothing supply is depleted, it’s foreseeable that the African solution to our overconsumption may come to an end. What then?”

    We burn the clothes for fuel!

  21. C. Ogle says:

    I’m now going to feel a lot less guilty when I go through the closet and donate all my old crappy clothes before I move.

  22. quail says:

    In my area, all of the charity thrift stores carry junk. Yea. You could comb the whole store and find one pair of pants or one shirt, but for the same price or one dollar more I can buy something similar on sale at the big box store. There I’d spend less time searching. I’d know the item fits (no dressing room in our thrift stores). And I don’t have to smell mold as I hunt around the shop. Really, when did the prices at the thrift stores get so high? $10 for a used shirt that’s not even good quality?

  23. Hi, I'm Danny Ganz! says:

    Can you please add a link to the original Slate article?